I was meeting Sarah for our regular coffee. Sarah’s one of those born entrepreneurs, she’s built and sold a variety of businesses, and she’s has a great touch with investments. I pick her brain about business issues, and she picks my brain about tech.

As we took our seats, Sarah sighed with frustration. “I’m trying to get a mobile app put together for the new business, but we simply can’t find any good programmers, do you think—”

I was a little brusque: “Hang on, Sarah, last week we talked about your business the whole time. How about I start?” She laughed, and I took the imaginary talking-stick.

“I can’t find good salespeople! They simply can’t be found anywhere, and I’ve tried.” I went on for a few minutes, and then Sarah gently recited the facts of business life to me:

why i can’t find good salespeople

“Robin, you believe in your product, and I believe in you, but to a salesperson the whole setup is very high risk. You’re offering a generous commission, but with a start-up, the salespeople have to convince customers they have a need AND convince them you can satisfy the need AND close them on satisfying the need now. Or they starve.”

“Salespeople are willing to take risks, but only on the things they can control. Your development schedule, your PR, the receptivity of the market to your innovation… Salespeople have no control over that. Generous commissions can’t compensate for risks they can’t mitigate with their skill and experience.”

“Furthermore, the fact that you aren’t a sales manager with your own track record of success is a red flag to them: There’s no social proof that someone who knows sales thinks this is a great opportunity. And if things aren’t going well, they can’t count on your sales management experience to know how to fix the problem. You are a great guy, you talk at programming conferences, but you have zero credibility as a VP-Sales when you pitch a job selling your product.”

“So, you have to pony up a sensible guaranteed compensation package. And even then, if someone comes to your business for a year and the business flames out, their resumé has a big red flag on it, prospective employers may think they couldn’t sell. That doesn’t matter for inexperienced people, they’re happy just to get a paycheque and say they’ve worked in sales for x number of years.”


“Let’s think about the more experienced people, the ones with track records. They don’t need another year or five of experience. If they’re any good, they’re not chasing another gold rolex, they’re chasing success, bragging rights, or a chance to say they made a difference. Given their perception that they may have to tell people the company failed, you’ll have to find another motivation to get them interested.”

“There’s no single answer to the motivation problem. It may be finding someone who’s a little evangelistic, who wants to be consultative and work more closely with customers. Or helping someone grow into marketing or product development. It may be finding someone who’s already fascinated by the problems your business solves. And it may be different for each person. But you certainly can’t expect good people to sign up just because you find some talent and are willing to pay.”

solving my problem

I finished scribbling notes. “So, Sarah, it comes down to this: Good salespeople don’t want to come on board because:”

  1. Their success is gated by risks they can’t control;
  2. My lack of management experience in their domain;
  3. Experienced people don’t need money or another couple of years on their resumé.

“So if I want good people, I have to:”

  1. Base their compensation on risks they can control;
  2. Hire a leader with credibility in their domain;
  3. Work with experienced people to tailor the job to their motivation.

“Got it, thanks.”

solving sarah’s problem

I finished my coffee. “Now, Sarah, what exactly were you asking about hiring good programmers to work in a startup for a non-technical founder?”